Butler for the (Ga)w(a)in
Sir Gawain’s experiences within “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” gives us new perspectives into how we can interpret genders in the 1800s. Often times, the social interactions were based on the construction of the body, which Judith Butler expresses in “Bodies That Matter”. There is a constant speculation between whether or not gender was a deciding factor in the way everyone’s lives laid out, and Butlers evidence provides support that leaves that contemplation unquestionable. Gender and sex had everything to do with the roles each lord or lady played in the medieval time period. Because Butlers claims of medieval gender being a performance or a phenomenon that cannot be detached from the body are both relevant in the realm of Sir Gawain and his role in society, we can argue that the significance of one’s gender was what defined men and women and their expectations as they journeyed through their daily lives in the medieval era.
Sir Gawain had little significance, his uncle being the King was the most reign he held over anyone. This was enough to bring out the standards that came with his position. When the Green Knight came in hopes to battle King Arthur, Sir Gawain sacrificed himself and asked to take on the task of the Green Knight so that the King would not be in danger. Gawain exclaims, “I am the weakest of them, I know, and the dullest minded, So my death would be least loss, if truth should be told; Only because you are my uncle am I to be praised…” (Poet, lines 354-356). He is aware that he is only worthy to even suggest he is capable of challenging the Green Knight because he shares the same blood as the King. This is a direct reflection of his gender being the purpose for his performance. We don’t see a female attempt to take this stand, nor another man whose family is insignificant. It is the nephew of the King who is obligated to be the noble man here. Butlers article states, “…what constitutes the fixity of the body, its contours, its movements, will be fully material, but materiality will be rethought as the effect of power, as power’s most productive effect”, this justifies why the society feels that the construction of Gawain’s body is the reason he sacrificed for his uncle. He used the power of his gender to enforce this. Inevitably, this could all go back to the idea of “wyrd” or described in the Oxford English Dictionary as, “fate” … this bold and brave act could be that turn of the “wheel of fortune” often spoken about. Gawain is setting his success story up to be the next one in line for fate to come his way.
In Fitt 2, when Sir Gawain is preparing to take his leave, he is kissed by the lords and ladies. This is something that is unusual for someone of his societal rank to be experiencing, but goes along with it and kisses his helmet as he is supposed to. “In armor as he was, he went to hear mass offered and celebrated at the high altar” (Poet, lines 592-593). Again, Gawain is performing in a certain way because his gender insinuates he is doing the “right” actions by following suit of past men taking part in similar tasks. His shields are placed on him as if he were a noble prince. Even though he is not a prince, his chivalrous decision has given him the privilege to do so. “—and for the sake of argument we will let “social” and “cultural” stand in an uneasy interchangeability—then what, if anything, is left of “sex” once it has assumed its social character as gender” (Butler 5). Judith Butler questions the concept that is attached to gender even being a possibility after you separate character from it. Which, if you look at Sir Gawain and the way he falls into his position, you could conceptualize him the same way. Is his sex really the driving force behind all that he does?
On a physical level, a man is expected to with-hold the courtly manners that come with their gender. “But if, lovely lady, you would grant me leave and release your captive, and ask him to rise, I would get out of this bed and put on proper dress, and then take more pleasure in talking with you” (Poet, lines 1218-1221). Sir Gawain had to attempt to be respectful when he had no desire to partake in any type of activity with her in his bed. Even though we know he was uncomfortable. The Old English translated one part of context as, “…and the burne schamed…”, which means “And the knight was embarrassed”, but in Poet’s translation it is simply translated as him being confused which could change the interpretation of what he is feeling in that moment. The courtesy he showed towards the woman was directly affiliated with his masculinity, ergo, Butlers idea of the gender being a phenomenon that cannot be detached from one’s body. “What will and will not be included within the boundaries of “sex” will be set by a more or less operation of exclusion” (Butler 11). The women have total freedom on how they behave and essentially get to control the men in some senses by taking advantage of the courtesy that is expected from them. It is up to each individual to decide whether or not they will let their gender decipher those boundaries… and in the medieval time period, they very well believed that was the case.
Later in that same Fitt, Fitt 3, we see Sir Gawain have to fulfil the duties that come with his gender. When he is faced with the woman trying to take and give a gift to Sir Gawain. “I want no gifts, I swear, dear lady, at this time; I have nothing to offer you, and nothing will I take” (Poet, lines 822-323). Gawain knows that an exchange of gifts means creation of a relationship, which he does not plan to have with her. The lady is persistent and tries to become the victim in the situation causing the representation of his gender to be weak. After being pushed into it, he feels pressured to accept the belt, but doesn’t want it to have any meaning behind it that connects the two together. On page 3 of “Bodies that Matter”, Butler states, “…the construct of gender is artificially imposed”. Gawain’s sex is imposed on him and he is pressured to do what other people have falsely decided he should act. The society has formed each step and movement Sir Gawain makes.
Because Butlers claims of medieval gender being a performance or a phenomenon that cannot be detached from the body are both relevant in the realm of Sir Gawain and his role in society, we can argue that the significance of one’s gender was what defined men and women and their expectations as they journeyed through their daily lives in the medieval era. It is made obvious that these concepts that we are shown which are based on the physical aspects of gender being debilitating to one’s growth as a human is challenged by the responsibilities men, in specific, feel obligated to perform due to the societal expectations being held for them. Gawain faces multiple situations that test his loyalty and position as a man in his time period that we see unravel into what could be seen as a preposterous way of choosing one’s fate in terms of their gender.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. TAYLOR & FRANCIS, 2015.
“The Oxford English Dictionary.” Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford Dictionaries, www.oxforddictionaries.com/oed.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, by Joseph Laurence Black, 3rd ed., vol. 1, Broadview Press, 2012, pp. 288–352.